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O P I N I O N
No Controlling Legal Authority
Eve Tushnet • Conservatism and the Sublime
April 2000

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
—Franklin Roosevelt

Here are two people. One is self-lacerating, authoritarian, masochistic, dependent on the judgments of others, repressed. (He’s probably a hypocrite, too, since no one would adhere to his grim worldview except out of guilt-ridden self-hatred—cf. “American Beauty”’s closet-homosexual militaristic father.) The other is self-actualized, independent, fearless, secure, egalitarian. She expresses herself. (Think of the women in ads for running shoes or sports bras.) These are the contemporary models of psychological dysfunction and health. Our choices are two: to love pain and constraint, or to love happiness and freedom. But the choice is tougher than we think.

In the March 2000 issue of First Things, Fr. Richard Neuhaus notes that a “contemporary version” of “Amazing Grace” has cleansed the hymn of its dysfunctional vocabulary. Rather than praising the God who “saved a wretch like me,” we can now sing, “who loved a soul like me.” My own Quaker summer camp tried to straddle the fence on this one—we were still saved, but no longer wretched. This indecisive version makes even less sense than the modern song of self-esteem; if we aren’t wretched, why do we need salvation? But this is not the main problem with such revisionism. In taking the language of wretchedness, of humiliation and inequality, out of the hymn, we make the grace no longer amazing. If we’re pretty good already, it should come as no surprise that God would care for us; we deserve to be loved, even to be saved. We are not so far frim God after all—which means that He cannot be very far above us. If we are not inferior, then we can have no superiors.

But this recognition of inferiority is just what is meant by the word “awe”—a necessary part of any sublime experience. Edmund Burke, in his essay “The Sublime,” writes that “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.” The sublime is an assault on the self. A few saints have described a difference between heavenly and infernal visions: The infernal visions are initially attractive and comforting, but become more and more unsettling; the heavenly ones are frightening at first, but grow more joyful and comforting.

Not all experiences of the beautiful, the initially attractive, are ultimately deceptive. Monet paintings, Tiffany glass, and cherry blossom trees are all good things. But the sublime is greater. It is Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” Our relation to any hero is a recognition of the sublime—we love him, look up to him in awe, and fear his judgment. We ache to be worthy of him and know that we are not. This is also our relation to those we most truly love. In Judah Halevi’s words,

 I love my enemies for You are one of them….
The day You hated me, I loathed myself,
  For I will honor none whom You disdain.

The sublime is related to another rejected concept, that of sublimation. Sublimation is an acknowledgment that our nature requires constraint. Sexual sublimation is only one possible variety, though probably the most prevalent and the hardest for us to understand today. Any action which attempts to transform sexual desire, to direct our ardently possessive eros into family life, to corral it in marriage or transmute it into religious awe, is viewed as self-destructive asceticism. Whatever is not expression is repression.

So why were we all so bored with Madonna’s Sex? By our standards, she should be the most authentically erotic performer this side of www.persiankitty.com. Yet Madonna’s book lacked risk. It was all just play at best, a faked-up quest for notoriety at worst—spray-on eros. With nothing at stake, there was nothing to attract us.

Thus many types of feminism have alienated us from the sublime nature of eros. Feminists have tried to bring equality and freedom into this fundamentally unequal and binding relationship. Marriages no longer require a promise of loyalty; couples vow to wed not for “as long as we both shall live” but “as long as we both shall love.” This is a fluffy, Hallmark way of saying, “I will leave you when I no longer love you. I will abandon you, and perhaps any children we make together, because my mercurial emotional state means more than any promise I could make.” In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce calls marriage, “A household consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.” He presents this definition as naughty, daring, even cynical. Yet despite its sardonic and somewhat rueful tone, it captures more about the real nature of the marriage promise—a promise not of equality but of mutual submission—than a full shelf of contemporary marriage manuals.

At this point it is necessary to point out that we did not reject this model of love for entirely bad reasons, as if on a whim or a dare. We rejected promises, constraint, and authority—the love that is inseparable from power and fear—because we hated despots. We wanted to be free from bad kings, brutal husbands, corrupt priests. Yet our solution has been terrible. Rather than replacing false claimants to authority with good ones, we have exalted equality. And we have denigrated all fear.

Perhaps this helps us understand why so many intellectual and politically active college students are on the Left. At Yale, most of the constraints of the outside world have been lifted. Your parents aren’t watching. Your minister isn’t watching. Your Dean isn’t watching. And if you abuse your new freedom, Yale will clean up the mess. There are Dean’s excuses, buses to take drunks to DUH, morning-after pills and bursar billing. We rarely see the consequences of freedom. It’s a miniature cradle-to-grave (in this case, matriculation-to-graduation) welfare state. We can try, at least, to live without guidance, without irrevocable mistakes, and so without regrets. As demanded by car bumpers everywhere, we Question Authority.

One possible interpretation of our behavior, probably the least belittling, is that we take Socrates as the only conceivable model for the intellectual. This Socrates is not the man we meet in the Symposium, in awe of the wisdom of Diotima, in love with the good. Instead, we are centaurs, half Socrates and half six-year-old, perpetually asking, “Why?” We, as intellectuals, are secure in only one belief: that if we can’t understand something, we should reject it. We play out a philosopher’s version of I, the Jury, and condemn all authority to death.
And so we reach the apparent contradiction of the contemporary Left, the political alliance of statism and relativism. Conservative thinkers have often puzzled over how these two ideologies could coexist. One model, the model of the regulatory state, says that some (the bureaucrats, the hidden men who actually write the rules) are fit to rule others; the other states that no one knows anything, and thus no one is fit to rule anyone. Yet the two clashing principles coexist because both are principally a reaction. Both overturn the model of authority.

Both Leftist structures disdain the notion of political wisdom. In the relativist-democratic model, no one has political wisdom, but the majority is always right and the elite is wrong. (Don’t ask me why this makes sense.) In the bureaucratic model, experts replace statesmen as political actors. The virtues of the statesman and of the bureaucrat may overlap, but they are not coterminous. Expertise is knowing a lot about a little thing; political wisdom is having a sense of human nature and human ends in their entirety. Experts take one good (usually a physical good—cigarette taxes to make us healthy, corporate welfare to make us rich) and apply themselves to achieving that good. They do not worry that this good might conflict with other, or even higher goods, such as liberty, responsibility, or familial love. Last fall I heard an interview on National Public Radio with a population-control expert. He praised China for its success in lowering the rate of population growth. When the interviewer asked the obvious question—what about criticism of China’s methods, the one-child policy, forced abortions and the like?—our expert replied that he was not here to talk about the relative morality of the methods, merely the goodness of the ends.

Experts’ inattention to the full picture of human life also leads them to make bad predictions. State aid to the poor offers a rich history of bad ideas. The experts didn’t predict that the New Deal would provide a powerful disincentive for the private benevolent and charitable organizations that had previously cared for the poor. Nor did they predict that giving extra money to unmarried mothers would encourage women to stay in relationships that were unstable and unsatisfying, but slightly more lucrative than marriage in the short term. Experts often fail in providing the only things they can provide, precisely because these are the only things they care about.

Conservatives may disagree on how much political liberty is truly possible for a society to continue and flourish, but they should at least agree on two points. First, that we should have as much political liberty as possible, rather than having all our decisions made for us by the experts at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Bureau of Child Welfare. 
And, second, that within this political liberty we should freely submit. We should allow the politically wise to represent us, rather than demanding direct democratic rule (in the United States or at Yale). We should bind ourselves to one another through charity and familial love, and to God through religious submission. It is in this way that we will be able to regain access to the sublime. Mother Teresa has said, “You can’t have humility without humiliation.” Nor can you have exaltation on the cheap. We must pass through what Spenser called the Gracious Valley of Humiliation in order to attain the heights of sublime experience. And we shouldn’t expect it to feel nice.

—Eve Tushnet MC ’00 is a former Editor-in-Chief of the YFP
 

   
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